Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Skinny by Diana Spechler

Skinny by Diana Spechler
Copyright 2011
HarperPerennial - Fiction
353 pages, including a conversation with the author
Diana Spechler's website

After the death of her father, Gray Lachmann begins binge-eating and gains 15 pounds. Distressed about the weight gain and surprised by unexpected news from the family's lawyer, Gray decides to leave New York City to work at a fat camp in the South.

From the author's website (having trouble figuring out how to describe this one):

"There, caught among the warring egos of her devious co-counselor Sheena, the self-aggrandizing camp director Lewis, his attractive assistant Bennett and a throng of combative teenage campers, she is confronted by a captivating mystery: her teenage half-sister Eden, whom Gray never knew existed. Now, while unraveling her father's lies, Gray must tackle her own self-deceptions and take control of her body and her life."

Up-front warning:

As I began to read Skinny, I realized something that has never really clicked for me. I absolutely cannot stand reading about people eating heavily. Lengthy descriptions of food, particularly food that's really bad for you, disturb me in a very visceral way (as in, "Yeeurgh. Queasy!"). In the future, I think I'm going to totally avoid books about eating disorders.

While I had a hint of this when I read The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen, there was a serious difference between the two books in that The Sugar Queen was less a book about a person with an eating disorder than a story of friendship with a surprising twist. Skinny is about people with serious weight problems, particularly one woman who is an emotional eater and a general disaster. She does develop a single friendship but it degenerates into a messy affair that pretty much destroys any possibility of an upbeat side coming to the fore.

What I liked about Skinny:

Obvious prejudice against the topic aside, there was very little that I liked about Skinny. I read the additional material in the back of the book, an author interview in which Diana Spechler explains what she was trying to accomplish, expectations after her very Jewish first book, Who by Fire, and a list of some of her favorite "not-entirely-likable protagonists".

Just so you know the significance of the list of unlikable protagonists, the author's intent was to write about a character who is not likable -- in this case, a fairly thin person who perceives herself as fat but who is in some way compelling. And, therein the problem lies. Spechler does have a smooth writing style; her writing is intelligent. So, the book is a very quick read. But, I didn't find Gray compelling.

What I disliked about Skinny:

Let's talk about Gray, the protagonist in Skinny, shall we? Gray is a mess. She's a stress eater and blames herself for her father's death. She's been in a lengthy relationship that she may have stayed in at least partly to be cruel to her father. Gray has removed everything she owns from the apartment she shares with her live-in boyfriend, but can't seem to decide whether or not she's going to return to him. And, she's unfaithful. There's a lot to dislike about Gray. And, of course, the author set out to craft her in that manner.

However, Gray is exactly like her name-- a very foggy, rather dull person. Her angst is unfortunately not all that interesting. I never did really care about Gray and I considered abandoning the book, many times. Why didn't I? Two reasons: First, I was having difficulty focusing and Skinny is very readable. Second, I briefly had a nagging feeling that I've been abandoning a few too many books. Actually, abandoning books that don't grab me seems to have worked very, very well during the first 4 months of the year and I think I need to return to that practice. But, back to Skinny . . .

There are many other things I disliked about the book. It lacked a thread of hope. I don't mind a book that is sad, tragic, depressing, dark, or focused on an unlikable character provided there is a thread of hope, some form of redemption/change, or the character is so utterly fascinating that you just can't put the book down. Kate Christensen's The Epicure's Lament is an excellent example of a book with a character who is dreadful but oddly appealing in some twisted way.

There were exactly three likable characters:

Spider - A girl with numerous deadly allergies and a fascination for random but interesting facts,
Bennett - The handsome and magnetic athletic director, and
The nurse (whose name I don't recall) - A woman who is untrained but competent and kind.

The rest of the cast was a hodge-podge of characters who were spiteful, obnoxious, cliquish, revolting, egotistical or almost devoid of personality. The camp itself is run by a man who has an overblown ego and no understanding of nutrition or weight loss. The counselors are untrained (except for Bennett) and, in fact, really quite dangerous.

I was actually a little disgusted that there were so many unlikable characters. Perhaps if the setting had been more realistic, rather than appearing to be deliberately disastrous, I would have felt a little more comfortable with the book. As the book progresses, most of the young characters attending the camp do evolve and gain confidence. But, there was just such a strong negative vibe -- poorly-run camp, horrid personalities, unqualified employees and cliques rather than genuine friendships. It was too much for me. Of the three most likable characters, one eventually is forced to leave the camp and another is diminished by succumbing to bad behavior.

The bottom line:

Skinny just wasn't for me and I don't feel comfortable recommending it. It's only been about two weeks since I finished the book, but I don't actually remember the ending. That's pretty unusual for me. Suffice it to say, the book was a major disappointment after the depth of craftsmanship the author exhibited in her first book, Who by Fire.

My thanks to TLC Books and HarperPerennial for the review copy.

I hate writing negative reviews because I know how much an author puts his or her heart and soul into the writing. If it didn't happen to be a tour book, I would not have written more than a paragraph about Skinny in my monthly summary to avoid a heavily negative review. Let us end this on a happy note, with flowers:

My next review will be very gushy and upbeat, with lots of quotations.

For those who are returning to look for BEA posts (that's Book Expo America, for those of you who may be related to me or not acquainted with the lingo of the book-obsessive part of the blogging world), I may or may not participate in further BEA posting activity. The nasty cold that's been throwing me for a loop kept me from posting or visiting other blogs yesterday (Tuesday), but I had such fun visiting new blogs on Monday that I hope to participate a bit more; I just can't say what I'll be up to. We shall see. Happy reading to all!

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I don't think this one is for me, either. I find myself reluctant read on certain topics, and this is one.

  2. Jenclair,

    I've had hints of discomfort with this topic in the past but for some reason it just didn't sink in till now. That knocks at least 2 or 3 other books I've considered off the list. Good to know, even if it takes a while to figure out what doesn't work, right?

  3. Oh, I am sorry to hear that you didn't like this one very much. I am going to be reading it soon, and will have to keep your comments in mind when I do. Thanks for the honest review!

  4. Zibilee,

    Fingers crossed that you enjoy it. Skinny just wasn't for me, but I still like the author's writing and look forward to seeing what else she comes up with, in the future. :)

  5. oh well. Next!

    as for ABEA? I'm with you. I don't need any more books so I'm not entering any giveaways and I am not a good interviewer/ee so I'm skipping that so I will just be going back to biz as usual.

    Vancouver would be awesome but we need to pick a place my hub won't mind not going - I was going to suggest Baltimore. Or Providence even! or... Newport would be good...

  6. Care,

    Haha, exactly! I'm still working on my next review and it's all sacharine as I'm besotted with the book I'm writing about.

    I'm not entering giveaways, either. No interview - don't like interviewing or being interviewed. Not sure about the rest of the week. More than anything, I want to get that positive review posted to offset the negative.

    Oh, well, hmm. We'll just have to leave you out of Vancouver, then, unless your husband doesn't mind going his own way (mine does - we intersect with each other and bounce off in our own directions, on some trips). I haven't been to any of those places. You're doing some good pondering, there!

  7. I'm hearing lots of negative reviews for this book so don't feel too bad. I couldn't agree with you more about dark depressing books having at least a tiny ray of hope. I hate when there's nothing but misery.

  8. Jenny,

    That's good to know, thanks. I avoid reading other reviews till I've written my own but I've been curious what other people think. I really think I would have been okay with Gray as a character if there'd been more positive people around her - maybe a more realistic "fat camp" situation would have helped. :)

  9. That's too bad. I hate writing negative reviews too, especially for book tour books. I don't know why some people think book bloggers do. I really do want to like everything I read.

  10. Chrisarama,

    Hopefully, the next book will be a winner. Who by Fire was truly an amazing work of fiction. Heavens, I can't imagine why anyone would think book bloggers enjoy writing a negative review! I think it's miserable and, after all, we tend to idolize writers, don't we? I don't take any pleasure at all in writing a negative review. In fact, I tend to try to bury anything about a book I don't love as quickly as possible because I don't want negative reviews to be prominent on my blog for any longer than absolutely necessary.

  11. I must admit that I enjoy reading negative reviews every now and then! This didn't sound like something I would enjoy, so I wasn't planning to pick it up, but I have her first book, which I'm looking forward to reading. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it!

  12. Avisannschild,

    Actually, I like reading negative reviews, too. I like to know both sides -- what people loved and what they didn't. But, I do hate writing them. I don't take pleasure knowing I may drive people away from a book. Who by Fire is really an amazing read. I'm glad you've got that one! Hope you love it!

  13. I really liked Who By Fire but I don't read any books on the lines of Skinny anyway, so negative review or positive prior book wouldn't have made any difference.

    I hope you feel better soon!

  14. Carrie,

    Who by Fire was amazing. And, now I know better than to read about people with weight problems/eating disorders, so I'll avoid them in the future.

    Thanks. :)

  15. I haven't posted my review yet because I'm cross-posting with Sandy of You've Gotta Read This, so this comment will be longer than it should be! But I didn't like Gray but thought her negative characteristics were symptomatic of her condition. And so she wasn't, in my opinion, gratuitously unlikable, if you know what I mean. And even the shallow boyfriend - I thought his shallowness was actually a reflection of Gray's shallowness (as narrator) because she didn't actually pay attention to anyone but herself and her own needs so she didn't really get to know the boyfriend. I think when you're constantly obsessing about weight and food and all that, there's not much room for much else, and to that extent, I thought the author did a good job of showing that. Still, yes, mixedness in my reaction!

  16. Rhapsodyinbooks,

    I'll have to dash over to read your review, when it shows up. You have a really interesting perspective. If you mean the shallowness of her camp boyfriend, I agree. I thought he had potential to be a more permanent part of her life, if she'd had any sort of grip on her own feelings -- great way to put it, "a reflection of her own shallowness". I can't say I liked the way things ended with either relationship but how she treated the men in her life obviously had to do with her inability to see herself as she really was. Bottom line . . . I really think I might have felt tolerant with her as a protagonist and the storyline, in general, if there had been a more believable camp atmosphere. Hard to say, though, since I found it completely impossible to buy into. I do understand the narrowness of one's focus when obsessed with food. I just don't like reading about it.

  17. Anonymous9:12 AM

    Darn, I'm sorry you didn't like this one especially since you were such a fan of the author's previous book. Still, I appreciate your honest review. Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  18. Heather,

    You're welcome and thanks (not necessarily in that order). :) I really did love Who by Fire, so my distaste for Skinny is definitely not enough to drive me away from Spechler's writing.


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